As Baltimore residents brace for the outcome of the first of six trials against police officers for the slaying of unarmed black man Freddie Gray, grassroots groups are accusing city authorities of "manufacturing" a threat—from schools to streets—to justify a preemptive crackdown on legitimate public protest.
Jurors reported Tuesday afternoon they were deadlocked over the trial of William Porter, one of six Baltimore police officers facing charges over the April killing of Gray, whose spine was mostly severed while in police custody. The judge overseeing the case ordered the jury to continue their deliberations over Porter's charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
Meanwhile, there are already signs that authorities are planning to come down hard on potential protests in response to the trial's outcome. Gregory Thornton, CEO of the Baltimore city school system, sparked outrage when he sent a letter on Monday to "parents, families, and community members" threatening to punish students for taking part in protests.
"Students need to understand that we support their right to express their emotions, and that we will facilitate opportunities to do so appropriately," the letter stated, "however we need to make it clear that student walkouts, vandalism, civil disorder, and any form of violence are not acceptable under any circumstances and that students who participate in such behaviors will face consequences."
In response, organizers with the grassroots student collective City Bloc wrote their own missive arguing that "Thornton's stance will inevitably stifle students' political agency and freedom of speech. By equating student walkouts with 'vandalism, civil disorder, and [other] forms of violence,' the [school system] has characterized students' voices as inherently violent and destructive to the city that we are all tasked with protecting."
"These are the same thoughts that allowed our mayor to call us, Baltimore's youth, thugs, for fighting for the city she should have protected long ago," the group's letter continued. "We will no longer tolerate this constant criminalization of our voices. As students, and as citizens of these United States, it is our right to safely and without threat of consequence voice our opinions in spaces created to do just that."
The ACLU of Maryland also expressed its strong objection Monday to Thornton's letter—and its insinuations—arguing that student protests are legitimate and should be respected.
"The school system's letter assumes that students would engage in violent acts, assumes that students only want to express their emotions, not rational views about the conduct of police and lack of accountability, and it misses an opportunity to affirmatively engage students who want to be politically engaged on these issues," said the legal rights group's executive director Susan Goering.
"Baltimore City is experiencing a historic moment," Goering continued. "Yet the school system's letter creates a sense that the school leadership does not want students to talk about the issues raised by Freddie Gray's death or how the justice system is addressing it. The school system's letter could instead foster constructive conversation about those issues as part of students' civic education."
However, the city's preemptive escalation extends far beyond public education.
"Ultimately, people here just want justice. If they are demonstrating or doing anything, it is centered on that."
—Adam Jackson, Leaders of a Beautiful StruggleBaltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Monday activated the city's Emergency Operations Center, she said, "out of an abundance of caution." And Baltimore police spokesperson T.J. Smith declared that police reinforcements have been sent from nearby jurisdictions, but would not specific exactly how many. Meanwhile, commissioner Kevin Davis canceled police leave for the week, declaring "the community has an expectation for us to be prepared for a variety of scenarios."
Grassroots organizers, however, are not buying it. "The Baltimore police department and mainstream institutions are manufacturing hype and misinformation about the climate," Adam Jackson, CEO of the Baltimore-based organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, told Common Dreams. "Ultimately, people here just want justice. If they are demonstrating or doing anything, it is centered on that."
According to Jackson, the current rhetoric echoes that in April "when police departments were saying gangs were trying to kill police, when they shut down the buses at Montgomery mall. Now you have county school systems canceling buses into the city and police getting ready with riot gear. They are manufacturing hype to justify doing things to citizens."
The Baltimore police department came under widespread criticism, including from city officials, when it made unsubstantiated claims the morning of Gray's funeral that gang members posed a "credible threat" to police officers. These claims were then used to justify a crackdown on public gatherings and protests.
Meanwhile, police are raising the alarm over public unrest while it is their department's actions that are on trial. The death of 25-year-old Gray sparked impassioned city-wide protests against police killings and institutional racism, in step with the nation-wide movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter. In response to public outrage, Maryland's governor activated the National Guard, the city imposed a curfew, and riot police deployed from across the state.
This time around, City Bloc is urging students "do not let yourselves be intimidated into silence... We will not allow our voices to be stifled under the guise of safety. If we choose not to take action now, our children will be burdened with the very work that we should be engaging in today."